Bolger school puts Harley on road to UK apprentice crown
When the end-of-term awards for the British Flat season are handed out at Doncaster on Saturday, Martin Harley should add further credence to the theory that there is no finishing school quite like Jim Bolger's Coolcullen boot camp.
With 56 winners, the Letterkenny native has a cushion of five over his closest rival, Kieran O'Neill, in the apprentices' championship. Both men were in the winner's enclosure at Kempton last night, but, with just three days' racing remaining, Harley ought to finish his whirlwind season on top of the pile ahead of his Kildare-born colleague.
Naturally, he is reluctant to accept that he has done enough. However, only a huge upset will prevent him following in the footsteps of fellow ex-Bolger employees such as Tony McCoy, Paddy Brennan, Paul Carberry and Aidan O'Brien by achieving champion status.
"He needs a handful of winners to pass me," Harley says of O'Neill. "You don't like being too confident, but I suppose I'm in the driving seat -- I'd rather be ahead than behind anyway."
Despite riding 46 winners over four seasons with Bolger, Harley's progress here was hindered by a couple of bad injuries. A fall at Clonmel in 2009 left him with two broken vertebrae in his back, and then he fractured his ankle at The Curragh last year.
While he eventually recovered from that setback to finish 2010 with an impressive tally of 15, the ambitious youngster felt that it was time to follow in the footsteps of the likes of McCoy and Brennan by crossing the water if he was to fulfil his potential.
"My weight was creeping up at home when I wasn't riding every day," he reveals, "but there is racing every day here. Obviously, if you're riding every day, it's easier to maintain your weight, and I've had a great year."
Based in West Ilsley with Mick Channon, the 22-year-old has positively excelled. In the event that he's crowned champion on Saturday, he will be the second successive Irish rider to achieve the feat, following Cork-born Martin Lane's triumph in 2010.
"Being champion apprentice is something that you actually dream of," Harley admits. "To be five winners in front with three days to go is a bit of a shock. I came to England just 10 months ago, and here I am fighting for the title, so it is exciting."
A non-drinker and non-smoker who began his career in the saddle on the 'flapping' circuit, Harley's family has a long association with racing. His uncle Paul rode successfully over jumps in England, while his brother Shaun frequently plunders the all-weather tracks there from his Donegal base.
The same modest venues have been kind to Martin, and events at Southwell today and Wolverhampton tomorrow could decide the title one way or another. He is also scheduled to take in Ffos Las in Wales tomorrow, before sharing a flight with the championship-chasing Silvestre de Sousa to fulfil his obligations at Wolverhampton.